Ashoka University is one of 10 educational institutions in the Rajiv Gandhi Education City in Haryana’s Sonipat and is sprawled across 25 hectares. While its red stone walls give nothing away, save the low hum of generators heard from hostels near the road, there is a storm brewing inside.
It came out when the Indian Express that Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a contributing editor for the publication and a political scientist, had resigned as professor from Ashoka University on March 16.
The students were in class when the news broke, and when Mehta entered the room, they questioned him about it. He replied in a cryptic manner, “People who know, will understand. If two of the most powerful institutions in the country, Bollywood and the Supreme Court can fall, then you just need to join the dots.”
to the university, accessed by the Indian Express, Mehta wrote that after a meeting with the founders of Ashoka university, it had become clear to him that he was considered a “political liability”.
“My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university,” he wrote.
Ashoka University espouses itself to be liberal education institution, with a focus on making students think critically from multiple perspectives, communicate effectively, and become leaders with a commitment to public service.
Referring to this core identity, Mehta said, “A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment.”
“In light of the prevailing atmosphere, the founders and the administration will require renewed commitment to the values of Ashoka, and new courage to secure Ashoka’s freedom,” he added.
Newslaundry spoke to third year Political Science students from the university who voiced apprehension about Mehta leaving on campus.
Preferring to remain anonymous, they referred to the atmosphere on campus as emotionally charged, and said that efforts were underway to make sure that the resistance was taken forward in a strategic manner, via strikes and boycotts of classes. They were disappointed with the vice chancellor Malabika Sarkar’s response during the town hall meeting that was called and attended by over 1,500 students. She denied knowing anything about the political nature of Mehta’s resignation.
Students sitting on protest.
Speaking to Newslaundry through gaps in the university’s gates, one of the students said, “We are very disheartened at the moment. We believed in this dream, and Mehta is the one who crafted it. As political science students, it’s definitely personal. A majority of the campus was taught by him and we are angry at the narrative being pushed that he was aloof and disturbed.”
Two days later, Mehta’s friend and colleague, noted economist Arvind Subramanian also put in his papers, that despite the university’s private backing, it was still unable to provide a space for academic expression and freedom.
Another student said, “We are astounded by the kind of influence that the trustees and founders still have on the administration and governance of the university. The vice chancellor is our leadership and if she enables this, it's very scary for us in terms of the kind of academic freedom we will be allowed on campus.”
Before Mehta’s letter was made public, there was speculation about his decision to resign. It was furthered by an published in the Edict, an independent student newspaper on campus, titled ‘Pratap Bhanu Mehta Resigns, Paving The Way For A New Plot’.
The article quoted an anonymous senior member of faculty who claimed that the resignation was endorsed by the founders of the university so that the “university’s efforts to acquire a new plot of land to expand the campus would get much smoother”.
On the ground, Newslaundry saw that there was construction taking place within the campus. Construction workers revealed that after they are done there, the process to expand the campus would begin, in about six months.
Construction workers at the site.
Construction work happening on campus.
In 2018, Hindu Business Line had that while the university had acquired the land across the road to expand by another 25 acres, funding was still an issue.
The article quoted former pro vice chancellor Sankar Krishnan saying, “The corpus of Ashoka University for the initial phase, contributed by various donors, had touched Rs 1,000 crore earlier this year. As it grows its campus, and research and PhD programmes over the next five to 10 years, the funds needed will be many times this number.”
The Edict had the present pro vice chancellor Rajesh Garodia in 2019 wherein he revealed that the university had been allotted a piece of land for expansion.
He said, “However, this is just the way the government works, it later came out that there is a national highway or a flyover that is going to be built on that land."
"Hopefully in a couple of weeks we will get a confirmation on the acquiral of the land. But what has happened in the process is while we had expected to get it last year, we have already lost 12 months of not having that land.”
The land purported for the expansion is presently a mustard field.
Dalbeer Singh, 60, used to own this land, until the government took possession of it in 2004. He told Newslaundry, “After the government acquired the land, it lay empty for years. There was no construction or anything of the sort happening. So, my brothers and I decided that we would use the field. We used to grow wheat but now we are cultivating mustard.”
When asked about Ashoka University’s expansion plans, he said he had heard about it. “But I haven’t seen or heard anything concrete. If they do end up expanding, I won’t be able to stop them because it is no longer my land. We just made use of it because it was lying empty.”
"A mood of resistance"
A faculty member who wished to remain anonymous said, “The mood on campus is that of resistance. Everyone on campus is deeply disturbed and there have been continuous protests, meetings and discussions.” All faculty members that we reached out to declined to comment, and the students believe that it is because there is a strong sense of fear.
A student explained, “At the town hall meeting, one of the teachers asked if Sarkar could assure them that they were safe, and that the founders would not call on them one day, asking them to leave because of their beliefs. After the meeting, we were told that even when there were police chargesheets against professors, Mehta would not let these reach them. That safe space has been completely shattered for us.”
The student representative body at the university, referred to as the student government, has served the administration with a list of demands which included a public apology to both professors as well as a “public unconditional offer letter” to Mehta to rejoin the university. They also demanded a meeting with the founders and structural changes that divest the founders from administrative roles in the institution.
While a section of students are also calling for Sarkar’s resignation, members of the student government said that they are yet to take a call on this “because there are multiple stakeholders to address. The demand from some students for the resignation is independent.”
There is also a sense of guilt that the students feel. “We feel like we let him down in a way and that breaks our heart. This was a story unfolding in front of our eyes for quite a while now and we should have pushed for institutional reform earlier,” they added.
This is not the first time that questions of freedom of speech have arisen on the Ashoka campus. In 2016, the debate on curbing free speech started once the university changed its email regulations, with emails from alumni to students and vice versa going through a moderator.
That same year, two members of the administrative staff and one faculty member resigned over their signing a petition which condemned the violence over militant Burhan Wani’s death and called for a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir.
In a separate letter, the faculty demanded that the university ask Mehta to rescind his resignation. The letter read, “We also request that the university clarify its internal protocols of faculty appointment and dismissal, and reinforce its institutional commitment to the principles of academic freedom.”
Newslaundry reached out to the administration of the university and Sarkar for a comment on the situation on campus, but no reply was received. This article will be updated if and when there is a response.
The uproar over the resignation is not limited to Ashoka University. About 100 academicians in the United States, including the likes of Homi K Bhabha, wrote an to the trustees, expressing solidarity with Mehta.
They wrote, “We write in solidarity with Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and to reaffirm the importance of the values that he has always practiced. In political life, these are free argument, tolerance, and a democratic spirit of equal citizenship. In the university, they are free inquiry, candor, and a rigorous distinction between the demands of intellectual honesty and the pressure of politicians, funders, or ideological animus. These values come under assault whenever a scholar is punished for the content of public speech. When that speech is in defense of precisely these values, the assault is especially shameful.”
Students on a silent protest.
Impact on university’s reputation
Talking about the implications of this incident, a student said, “We fear the impact this will have on the reputation of the university. We also feel like our protection has been taken away, and we have to start becoming more careful about what we say and write. My thesis was also along these lines, but now it isn't a question I'll be delving into simply because my institute isn’t going to give me a safe space to do it.”
The students added that after their most senior professor had to leave the way he did, citing the reasons he did, there was overwhelming fear that the same would happen to students.
“We understand that this is a defining moment in Ashoka University’s history and how we navigate this does have larger repercussions. The bigger picture is that this place was the last part of the resistance against the attack on freedom of speech, and it has now been thrown down. However, there is a plan of action and we will sustain it,” they said.
Ashoka University's building.